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In Mississippi gay rights battle, both sides feel they are losing

How others see it

When Mississippi passed a law defending religious liberties, it felt like overkill to LGBT residents who have virtually no protections anyway. But religious conservatives say they are trying to hold back a tide. Part 4 of seven.  

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    Protesters seeking repeal of a Mississippi law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to same-sex couples march from the State Capitol to the governor's mansion in Jackson, Miss., on May 1. The law was later blocked by a federal judge.
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It had rained hard all morning with the kind of intensity that might convince folks to stay home on a dark and cloudy Sunday afternoon.

But as a group of protesters began to assemble outside the State Capitol here, the clouds rolled back and streaks of sunlight shone down through the trees.

Gay rights rallies feature an eclectic array of individuals, many of them wearing deliberately provocative attire adorned with various rainbow symbols. It is part of the vibe, a declaration of individuality and, at the same time, a badge of pride and belonging.

At the edge of the buzzing crowd stands a man in his late 50s. He is dressed conservatively in trousers and a plain shirt. He does not look uncomfortable or out of place, but given his style of clothing he could have just emerged from the First Baptist Church a block away.

During an interview with a news reporter, the man offers an observation: “A lot of people have turned same-sex marriage into a religious issue, but to the people who want to get married it is a civil rights issue.”

The reporter asks if he can quote the man by name. He shakes his head, no.

“I don’t want to lose my job,” he says. 

The single most important fact about the state of gay rights in Mississippi in 2016 is perhaps best expressed in that quiet request to remain anonymous.

It is still not safe for a gay man in Mississippi to publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation, even as he participates in a gay rights rally in the state capital.

Mississippi is at the forefront of an escalating clash between advocates seeking to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and religious conservatives working to protect traditional concepts of marriage and sexual morality.

Just a few weeks before the Jackson gay rights rally, the Mississippi Legislature enacted House Bill 1523, formally called the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act. It is the most sweeping religious protection law in the country. It is designed to shield religious traditionalists from what lawmakers view as an aggressive national gay rights agenda that seeks to marginalize and demonize people of faith.

Lawmakers felt compelled to take this unprecedented step even though in Mississippi same-sex couples have no legal protection against discrimination in the workplace, in housing, in public accommodations, or in any other part of their lives.

The law was set to take effect July 1, but has been blocked by a federal judge.

In issuing his preliminary injunction, US District Judge Carlton Reeves said HB 1523 authorizes “arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons.”

He said it also violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. “The state has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others,” the judge wrote in a 60-page opinion.

State officials are appealing the decision.

Why was such a law necessary given the near complete lack of legal protections for LGBT Mississippians?

Legislators here have seen how religious organizations and religious conservatives have been treated in other states that have passed laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

They were listening closely when United States Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the Supreme Court in 2015 that the Obama administration could challenge the tax-exempt status of religious colleges that refuse to fully recognize same-sex marriages.

In the face of these threats, Mississippi lawmakers decided to move proactively, to protect certain beliefs and values before the onward march of gay rights attacks them as discriminatory and bigoted.

“In a perfect world we wouldn’t need a law like this, we could live and let live,” says Ron Matis, political liaison for the Mississippi district of the United Pentecostal Church, which supports the law.

“The problem is, we don’t live in a perfect world,” Mr. Matis says. “There are elements on both sides that have tried to legislate this matter [to their own advantage], and as a result we are at a place where no one wants to be truly tolerant, and no one wants to be truly ‘live and let live.’ ”

Critics of HB 1523 argue that the religious protection law is overkill given the lack of LGBT protections.

“I have not run into anybody in the LGBT community in doing this work who wants to shut down all the churches. All they are trying to do is live their lives like everybody else,” says Erik Fleming, director of advocacy and policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

Talking to both sides in this clash it is clear there is an enormous disconnect between LGBT advocates and religious conservatives. More important, there is an enormous – and growing – sense of distrust on both sides.

“If you have a political process that is catering to fear, then that’s the kind of public policy you are going to get,” says Mr. Fleming, the ACLU’s chief lobbyist and a former state senator.

“If you cater to somebody who is expressing hope, then you are going to start to see some things that move toward progress.”

He adds: “I think this legislation plays into fear, rather than asking how can we coexist.”

•  •  •

Efforts to pass an antidiscrimination statute in concert with religious exemptions have failed repeatedly.

Instead, the new law is intended to establish preemptive protection for religious organizations and individuals. It seeks to make crystal clear that religious conservatives will not face punishment from state or local agencies for trying to live their lives or conduct their businesses in accord with traditional religious beliefs about marriage, sexual morality, or gender identity.

“Because the Supreme Court has already essentially validated this view that same-sex couples can marry, this is the balancing act to say, ‘Well, people with religious beliefs also still have rights,’ ” says Forest Thigpen, president of the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

The preamble to HB 1523 recounts with concern how religious adoption and foster care agencies were forced to close because of religious issues in Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Columbia. It notes how family-owned wedding vendor businesses in Oregon, Washington state, Iowa, and New York faced fines or were forced to close because the owners sought to run their shops in accord with conservative religious values.

In response, the statute:

  • Establishes that religious conservatives may continue to refuse to become involved in a same-sex wedding if that refusal is based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • Permits religious organizations to refuse involvement in marriages with which they disagree on religious grounds.
  • Allows religious groups to hire, fire, rent housing, manage adoption services and conduct other activities consistent with their religious beliefs.
  • Permits the setting of sex-specific criteria for employee or student dress, as well as access to restrooms, locker rooms, and showers based on the individual’s sex at birth rather than their current sexual identity.
  • Allows a circuit clerk or other state employee to avoid personally becoming involved in the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples when that action would violate religious beliefs. The exemption is granted only if the official has given prior written notice and has taken steps to ensure someone else in the office can issue the license promptly.

Through the eyes of the 60,000 members of the LGBT community in Mississippi, HB 1523 is a massive and multi-layered license to discriminate.

“Mississippi is always a place that takes time to get it right,” says Jody Owens, who heads the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“That’s just who we are as a state. We are always late for change.”

•  •  •

No doubt about it, Mississippi is a conservative place. As one observer puts it: Churches are “like Starbucks in California, they are on every corner.”

The radio airwaves are filled with preachers of varying intensity. That’s not all. On a popular music station, when Taylor Swift sings about a young man as being “handsome as hell,” the word “hell” is digitally erased, leaving a brief, awkward moment of dead air.

Rob Hill, state director for the national LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, knows that in such a place members of the LGBT community are viewed with some unease. So his basic message to state officials comes down to five words: “We are not a threat.”

“We’ve got to help people know that we are just like everybody else,” says Mr. Hill. “The only thing we threaten is dismantling misconceptions and tearing down walls that were built through bigotry and fear … mostly by fear.

In Mississippi, fear runs both ways.

On the day of the gay rights rally, some 400 demonstrators marched the three blocks down Congress Street from the State Capitol to the white-columned governor’s mansion. As they walked, they chanted: “No Hate in Our State.” One demonstrator carried a sign: “Real Christians Don’t Discriminate.” Another sign proclaimed: “God Loves All His Children.”

Rallies like this one are important not just because the governor might look out his window, but because they give an opportunity for members of the LGBT community to get together in a supportive atmosphere.

“This was not just an event for the Human Rights Campaign,” Hill says.

“This was an event for all those people – the person who can’t tell you his or her name because they fear losing their job. It is important for them to see each other and to feel a sense of solidarity and support,” he says.

Protester Trent Nichols agrees. “With rallies like this, it kind of helps you realize that, hey, you are not alone. You are here and people can sympathize and empathize with you.”

Protesters of HB 1523 march in Jackson, Miss., on May 1. Jeff Amy/AP/File

Rigel Kinney of Oxford, Miss., wants to be seen as neither male nor female, and talking to Kinney and Mr. Nichols, it becomes clear why the clash between LGBT rights and religious conservatives is so difficult to mediate.

Many members of the LGBT community say they grew up in conservative religious families and felt oppressed and rejected at the most vulnerable time in their lives.

“I’ve heard my grandparents make really, really nasty comments about gay people, about trans[gender] people,” Kinney says. “Usually along the lines that they are going to hell, and they are perverted by Satan, and so on and so forth.”

Nichols agrees. He was raised attending the Pentecostal Church in a small town in rural Mississippi. By age 18 he was an ordained Pentecostal minister. By 22 he left the church and came out as gay. His family shunned him for two years. Even now, at age 27, it is a struggle, he says.

At some point he’d like to get married, but he knows his family will never accept it. “I will invite them [to the wedding], but I know they will not come,” he says. “Emotionally, that is a hard thing to accept. But at the same time, I just have to tolerate where they come from, respect where they come from.”

Is his parents’ position hatred? Is it bigotry?

“It is personal belief,” the former minister says.

Does he think his parents hate him?

“No, they love me,” he says. “This is the conundrum.”

•  •  •

These cultural influences give the gay rights movement in Mississippi a distinctive character.

For example, when Nichols is asked how he would respond if someone refused to bake a cake for his same-sex wedding, he says he believes in the free market.

“If you go someplace and they won’t bake you a cake, you go someplace else to find it,” he says.

In Mississippi, gay men and lesbians aren’t as aggressive as other places in confronting religious conservatives, he adds.

“The majority of the LGBT community sees that. We know who our supporters are. We know who our friends are,” he says.  “We are not going to force people to do something they don’t want to do, whether it is against their religious belief or they just don’t want to do it.”

In the absence of legal protections, the LGBT community in the state has responded with a campaign to help people know which companies are friendly and open to serving everyone. Hundreds of stickers have been distributed to restaurants and retail outlets. The stickers announce: “We Don’t Discriminate. If You’re Buying, We’re Selling.”

Rigel’s cousin, Rose, also attended the rally in Jackson.

As a 22-year-old lesbian living in a small Mississippi town, she generally keeps her sexual orientation private.

“I tend to be very quiet and very under the radar about it,” she says, particularly when certain folks make ugly remarks about LGBT people.

“It’s better to just let it go even though it does sting to hear your own family members saying this about you,” Rose says. “You wonder whether or not they would say the same thing if they knew about you.”

She adds, “But you don’t know, because that is not a risk that I want to take.”

Rose says she’s not concerned that a cake designer or florist in her state might refuse to serve her wedding.

“I have a view of this that a lot of other people in my [LGBT] community would disagree with,” she says.

“When it comes to private businesses that offer nonessential services like wedding cakes, like wedding accessories, I honestly don’t think that they should have to serve anyone if that is truly and deeply against their beliefs,” she says.

“I would feel rejected and I would feel bad,” she adds, “but I can’t help but think that I shouldn’t be forcing anyone to do something.”

Rose stresses that those views do not extend to other provisions in HB 1523 that include housing and employment which, she says, are essential.

Brooke McCarthy looks at it a different way. As a lawyer in the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, she says HB 1523 fails to recognize the problem of children and teens who are struggling with their sexual identity.

Even before HB 1523, “We could already be kicked out of our houses and fired from our jobs. That discrimination is completely acceptable in the state of Mississippi,” Ms. McCarthy says. “And now what the state has said is, ‘OK, not only are we not enacting protections for you, but we are going to protect the people who are going to make your life extremely difficult.’ ”

“It is the teenagers, the children who feel this in a much stronger way,” she says.

Forty percent of homeless youth in Mississippi are LGBT teens. “Where does this child go when they’ve been kicked out of their home [because of their sexual orientation], and the state has said no one needs to provide you any services because of who you are?” she asks.

But McCarthy says overall she is optimistic about the future of gay rights – even in Mississippi.

She says the critical engine that will drive that change is more LGBT people revealing their sexual orientation and gender identity to their family, friends, and colleagues, and working through the conflicts with religion and relationships.

“Unfortunately, in a state like Mississippi, you have more people who are less inclined to make that reconciliation, and it is not as far along where people can come out,” she says.

“Part of it is religion. You have a lot of individuals who were raised in these [conservative] churches being told since they were a child that something was wrong with them,” McCarthy says.

“It is just going to take a little bit more time,” she adds, “but it is the personal connection that will always make the progress.”

•  •  •

For Matis, with the Pentecostal Church, the situation looks somewhat different.

Yes, there are important considerations on both sides of the dispute, he says. But his perception is that LGBT activists insist that religious beliefs must yield to gay rights.

When the controversy arose over HB 1523, he says he received a tweet objecting to a comment he had posted. The person wanted to know why Matis’s marriage was more important than a same-sex marriage.

“Nobody is saying my marriage is more important than his,” Matis says, recalling the exchange. “I think the better question in the context of the bill is: Why is your marriage more important than my religious freedom?”

He adds: “We’ve somehow gotten to this conclusion in our society that disagreement means discrimination.”

Take the provision in HB 1523 that allows a clerk to avoid issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple by arranging for someone else in the office to authorize the license.

Matis says the accommodation strikes an appropriate balance that recognizes the ability of the same-sex couple to receive a marriage license while also recognizing that some clerks may – for religious reasons – seek to opt out of being personally involved in the transaction.

Tiffany Brosh (c.) and Laurin Locke (r.) file for a marriage license with deputy clerk Loretta Wells at the Hinds County circuit clerk's office in Jackson, Miss., on June 26, 2015, moments after the US Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage nationwide. Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File

The clerk opt-out provision is among an array of legal issues raised in four pending lawsuits filed in federal court seeking to invalidate HB 1523. The suits claim the opt-out provision treats same-sex couples as second-class citizens and unequal.

“What would be true inequality would be to say to people of faith, ‘Your faith doesn’t matter,’ ” Matis says. “ ‘What you hold sacred and sincere in your heart and those teachings that you hold dear, those aren’t valid anymore and you have to participate in something because you can’t say no.’ ”

He adds: “There’s no equality in that.”

Hill, the HRC state director, disagrees. He says any difference in the way marriage licenses are dispensed would render same-sex couples inferior.

“I don’t think there should be any kind of religious objection,” Hill says. “If you have a religious objection to a same-sex couple receiving a marriage license and you cannot in your religious conviction offer that, then you should find a job that allows you to live out your religious beliefs.”

Hill says the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision established that same-sex couples have the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Both couples must be treated exactly the same, he says.

“The circuit clerk works for all taxpayers in the county, not just the straight tax payers,” he says.

Hill is not just the HRC state director. He is also a former ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Clergy in that church may not bless or marry same-sex couples. And they are not supposed to be gay.

But Hill was a pretty good preacher – once tying for second place in a Jackson newspaper’s survey. After a while, most people in his church figured out that he was gay.

“They didn’t care,” he says. “They got to know me as their pastor. I was there for them. I baptized their babies. I married their children. I buried their dead. And I did it in a way that was loving and sincere. I think they knew that I loved them and they trusted me.” 

That, in short, is how Hill plans to lay the groundwork for civil rights protections for the LGBT community in his home state.  

“I tell people I didn’t leave the ministry,” Hill says, “I just have a much larger congregation – and as you saw during the rally, more wonderfully diverse.”

Rob Hill, state director of the Human Rights Campaign Mississippi, speaks on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on July 1, the day after a federal judge blocked a Mississippi law on religious objections to same-sex marriage. Rogelio V. Solis/AP

But the bottom line for Hill and for the HRC is that religious conservatives must change their doctrine to be inclusive of the LGBT community or they should leave the marketplace altogether.

“People cite their religious beliefs around our issues, but the Bible says all kinds of things about divorce. Divorced people do just fine in society, they are not having to go and fight at the bakery for their second or third wedding cake,” Hill says.

“It is because we’ve moved [beyond] that,” he says. “Divorce has been legal for a long time in our country.”

And how, if he were still in the clergy, would he counsel a wedding vendor seeking religious guidance on whether to decline to serve a same-sex couple’s wedding ceremony?

Hill turns the question around, asking why more people aren’t upset by that attitude.

“There would be an uproar if somebody is denied service because of their ethnicity or their marital status. We would be offended. But there is not so much offense taken when it is a gay person who is denied service,” Hill says. “That’s a problem for me. And it certainly suggests we still have work to do in our country understanding LGBT people.”

Hill says it is not fair as a customer to have to negotiate a business owner’s religious beliefs or accommodate them.

Many religious conservatives say roughly the same thing: that it is not fair for a shop owner to be coerced into violating his or her religious beliefs for customers who could easily find the same product or service at another business.

Matis says religious freedom is a cornerstone of the country, not a license to discriminate.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got a responsibility to recognize that there is a significant majority of Americans who hold very deep and abiding faith, and if we are not protecting them or if we are marginalizing them, then we are not really serving our country very well,” he says.

“There needs to be an effort to really have a dialogue,” Matis adds, “but as long as the dialogue is, ‘Do it only my way, and tolerance and equality only comes when you lay down your sincerely-held beliefs and must agree with my beliefs,’ that is not real acceptance, and that is not real equality, and that is not real tolerance.”

•  •  •

Part 1: How the push for gay rights is reshaping religious liberty in America
Part 2: A florist caught between faith and financial ruin
Part 3: Behind legal fight over religious liberty, a question of conscience
Part 4: In Mississippi gay rights battle, both sides feel they are losing
Part 5: Is wedding photography art? A wrinkle in religious liberty debate.
Part 6: For those on front lines of religious liberty battle, a very human cost
Part 7: A push to help gay couples find wedding joy – without rejection

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